Since Joseph Jean Drapeau was first elected mayor of Montreal at age 38 in 1954, Canada has had seven Prime Ministers, Quebec nine premiers and Toronto nine different mayors. Except for an interregnum from 1957 to 1960, when the late Liberal Senator Sarto Fournier served a single three-year mayoral term after an election marked by violence, Drapeau has ruled Montreal over the years with a shrewd combination of the common touch and the politics of grandeur. But last week, as Drapeau marked his 70th birthday in fragile health, he hinted that he may be preparing to relinquish the office he has occupied for more than 28 years. In a rare radio interview recorded at a private birthday party, Drapeau added, “It is normal I will have to leave one day or the people will force me to leave.”
Drapeau’s impact—in Canada and around the world—has been more dramatic than that of many of his political contemporaries, now retired from higher office. He has endured the bad times of separatist Quebec violence and the flight of business in the 1970s to preside over Montreal’s recent economic recovery. He has gloried in the high times of Montreal’s Expo 67, the 1976 Montreal Olympics and an eclectic series of international festivals and exhibitions celebrating fireworks, Pablo Picasso, jazz and ancient Egypt. He has survived accusations of autocracy, extravagance and scandal by simply disdaining to answer to his city council, to the press—or to the doting vot-
ers who have returned him to power in seven straight elections.
Despite the growing impatience with his autocratic style, the maturing of a civic opposition and his own health problems, many Montrealers believe that Drapeau could win the next city election on Nov. 9. But even his friends are uncertain. Said Montreal transit official Gerry Snyder, a former city councillor who is close to Drapeau: “I would say there is a 60-per-cent chance Mr. Drapeau will run again.” But Snyder and other associates say that Drapeau will not run—and will choose a successor to lead his Civic party by May or June—if he believes he could not complete another four-year term. Said community consultant Sid Stevens, also a former councillor allied with Drapeau: “He has always said that beginning a term is like setting out on a trip: if you can’t make it all the way to your final destination, don’t start the car.”
Drapeau, the owlish, five-foot, sixinch lawyer from Montreal’s modest Rosemont neighborhood, rose to prominence practising criminal and real-estate law. From the beginning of his mayoral tenure he made his destination clear: making and maintaining Montreal as a world-class metropolis. To that end, Drapeau has been a tireless promoter, even after a stroke and a broken hip in 1982 slowed him down. Then, last Dec. 15 he fell in his office and cracked a vertebra—an injury that has further restricted his activities. But in his birthday interview with
Montreal radio station CFCF 60, Drapeau stressed that his Civic party will carry on his policies “with me or without me.” Said Drapeau: “The party is there. It shows no sign of weakness.”
Still, the opposition Montreal Citizens’ Movement (MCM) insists that the end of an era is near. At the last municipal election in 1982 Drapeau failed for the first time in 25 years to win a clear majority. He still won with 48.5 per cent of the vote against two opponents, in an election notable for the biggest turnout in Montreal’s history—55 per cent of the 700,000 eligible voters. But the opposition on the 57member city council increased to 18 from two. Since then one opposition faction has collapsed, and the remaining challenger, the MCM, has doubled its membership to 7,000 in the past year. MCM leader Jean Doré, 40, is a charismatic labor lawyer who served as a Parti Québécois press aide to René Lévesque in the 1970 provincial election. Since he won 37 per cent of the vote against Drapeau in the last municipal election, Doré—who says he now supports no provincial or federal party—has quietly moved the MCM closer to the political centre from its leftist roots. Declared Doré: “In the eyes of most voters, we have made the transition from being an opposition pressure group to a mainstream, viable alternative.”
At the same time, the Civic party— its membership confined by Drapeau to present councillors and former candidates—lacks a clear idea of who will lead it in the election. Speculation about potential successors to Drapeau has centred on Roger Landry, publisher of the daily La Presse, and Raymond Garneau, Quebec finance minister from 1970 to 1976 and now Liberal MP for Montreal’s Laval-des-Rapides.
Drapeau’s eventual successor is expected to turn City Hall’s attention toward improving industry and neighborhood projects—if only because it would be difficult to equal Drapeau’s flair for selling the spectacular and shrugging off criticism when things go wrong. Almost six years ago a judicial inquiry placed the “greater part of the blame” on Drapeau for cost overruns of more than $1 billion on the 1976 Olympic Stadium, which only now is having its retractable roof and the tower to hold it completed. Drapeau once said that he would answer the inquiry’s charge, but to date his only response has been to compare his city to the grandeur of ancient Athens. Said Drapeau: “Two thousand five hundred years ago, Pericles, too, was criticized for building the Acropolis.”
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